When you think of a canal boat, most people (in the UK at least) would bring to mind a traditional narrowboat. Definitely not to be referred to as a “long boat” – as those were what the Vikings used to go around pillaging in – narrowboats are, nonetheless, long and thin, with a maximum width of six feet, ten inches. Lengths vary from perhaps 25 feet for a tiny one probably most suitable for weekend jaunts, up to just under 72 feet at the absolute extreme end of the scale.
Length is a crucial factor when considering a narrowboat because of the need to fit into locks. “But surely all the locks are the same?” you might well cry! Alas, no. Because of the way the canals were constructed by different companies at different times, the locks are built to slightly different lengths around the network.
The general rule of thumb is that a 57-foot boat can travel anywhere (though I believe there are one or two very remote locks that are much shorter but you’re not going to encounter these in everyday canal travel so fear not).
You can also get away with a boat a few feet longer, maybe up to 60, by squeezing it in across the diagonal of the wider locks found in the northern and southern widebeam canals.
There are plenty of boaters who have narrowboats over this length mind you, maybe 62 or 65 feet, and there are a handful of locations to which they cannot travel as a result.
Of course, all the lock dimensions are now well catalogued and the guidebooks state the maximum dimensions (not just width, length but draft and height too) for each canal so it’s not hard to check before travelling.
For life aboard, a 50-footer is probably the comfortable minimum for a couple, though of course there are always exceptions and people willing to cram into much smaller spaces.
Originally built to carry cargo, working narrowboats had a tiny cabin space at the back where entire families would live, extraordinary though that seems today. The bulk of the deck was for carrying goods.
The modern, leisure, narrowboat is nearly all cabin space with a well deck for sitting at the front, some standing space at the back, and assorted rooms in between.
Whether a narrowboat is right for you depends on how you feel about life in a long thin tube. Many people not only adapt to it with ease but positively embrace the style and enjoy the heritage. Plus of course, presuming it is of a suitable length, a narrowboat can travel anywhere on the system including all the narrowbeam canals of the Midlands, where wider boats cannot go.
On the other hand, some folk simply can’t cope with the claustrophobic, closed-in environment and long for a more “house shaped” living space, in which case a wide beam craft, with all its associated costs and limitations, may be the appropriate solution.
Whilst families of old used to happily all cram into a 10-foot living space, this is unthinkable today and even a large narrowboat may be considered too cramped for families. It’s very much a matter of personal taste.
Subject to the same restrictions regarding length, boats are considered widebeam if they’re anything wider than a narrowboat. Typically they’d be 10 to 12 feet wide, though there are manufacturers creating boats slightly slimmer (9 feet perhaps) which have the “feel” of a narrowboat but without the cramped interior. Bear in mind that even the ‘thin’ widebeam boats can still only travel on the wide canals because of the lock widths.
Wide locks are double the narrowbeam size, so about 14 feet across, meaning plenty of space for widebeam boats though of course you can only fit one such boat in at a time whereas you can squeeze two narrowboats in a wide lock, for efficiency.
Unlike narrowboats which generally all echo the historic craft they’re based on, the term widebeam also covers a variety of other styles. You get wide versions of narrowboats but also Dutch barges, former lifeboats; trawlers; working boats … all kinds. The further you travel on the wider canals, the more variety you’ll spot, with people taking all kinds of craft and converting them for leisure and liveaboard use.
Whilst many would technically fit the wider canals, some of the more extreme versions are really better suited to river life, either for reasons of draft (how deep they sit in the water – remember the canals are really shallow, just a few feet deep because they were only dug so as to float a flat barge full of cargo) or for headroom (there are many bridges, tunnels and overhangs on the canals, and you’re wise to keep an eye on anything sticking up – many a TV aerial and stove chimney has come a cropper!)
Modern widebeam craft, built specifically for living aboard tend to resemble floating apartments rather than boats. They’ll have a big lounge, huge kitchen often with centre island for meal preparation, substantial bathrooms resembling something from a trendy hotel, as well as palatial master bedroom suites and often a decent-sized guest or child bedroom as well.
Combined with all this will be vast water and waste tanks, larger engines than a narrowboat – needed to shift the bigger bulk of a widebeam around – and often generators or a lot of solar panels to help power the modern conveniences such boats are often equipped with.
Widebeams are much more like living in a flat (apartment) that happens to be on water whereas narrowboats have a more traditional and boat-like feel.
Interestingly, if built to certain dimensions widebeams are exempt from VAT (sales tax) if used for living aboard so they can be good value albeit expensive in pure monetary terms.
Don’t forget however that widebeams will cost more to own, run and maintain. Your mooring fees are likely to be higher (widebeams take up the space of two narrowboats in a marina); the Canal & River Trust has recently altered their licencing fees which will now cost more for widebeams; and painting and rust-proofing (“blacking” the hull) will be more because of the sheer size of a widebeam.
Widebeam owners face the restriction on routes that narrowboat owners don’t, namely that they won’t fit up the narrow canals in the Midlands so you need to choose which end of the country you wish to cruise or moor from the outset (unless you’re willing to pay to have the boat hauled out and transported by road to the other side of the narrow bit)
Also, oddly, you are likely to get some grief from the occasional narrowboat owner who thinks your craft is too big and shouldn’t be allowed on the canals. Obviously, this is really their problem not yours (provided you have indeed kept your boat to the wide canals rather than cruised it up the narrow ones as far as you can go. For example there are some widebeams on the North Oxford canal which is technically narrow but still wide enough for boats to go almost up to Hillmorton whereupon progress is halted by the narrow locks. The CRT have now become aware of this and officially advise widebeams not to go up the North Oxford at all)
Finally let us not forget the fibreglass (“GRP” – glass reinforced plastic) river cruiser which is often a cheaper and easier route to boat ownership for many people.
Such cruisers are usually sold for river use and have dimensions (including width and draft) suitable for such but there are specific varieties of these “yoghurt pots”, as they are known derogatively by steel boat owners, built especially for the canals.
If you want to travel on the narrow canals the limiting factor is again the width of the locks so look out for boats by Norman and Viking Cruisers, who made / still make (respectively) ranges of suitably slim width. The latter is not to be confused with another business called Viking Canal Boats who make steel widebeam craft.
They’re not cheap when new – a Viking 32cc retails at around £75,000 at time of writing – but older ones can be picked up for just a few thousand pounds where a narrowboat of similar price would likely be more rust than boat.
Being fibreglass these cruisers don’t rust but they are much more fragile than a steel-hulled boat. They tend to be shorter than narrowboats – the Viking 32cc at 32 feet is the longest currently made as far as I’m aware – and don’t tend to have the same levels of insulation for cold weather, if indeed any insulation at all. That said, you might be wise to lift a GRP boat out of the canal over winter anyway because when the water freezes, ice being pushed into the side of a fibreglass boat by a passing narrowboat can cause damage.
 There are a small number of historic craft that are a couple of inches wider but they can struggle in some of the narrow locks which are only just wider than the boats. All modern narrowboats are made to the 6’10” specification.
 Most widebeam “narrowboats” qualify for this but there’s a specific formula relating to the deck area that needs to be met in order to gain the exemption. Your boat-builder or tax adviser should be able to give you the full info.